My Manners are Tearing Off Heads (Ted Hughes)

Dear Readers, sometimes death visits the garden. It’s inevitable, I suppose – the number of birds feeding there is a magnet for a predator. Usually I just find the evidence – the sad body of a blackbird with his head removed, a sea-foam of feathers under the hedge, and once two tiny limp dove’s feet. But on Sunday last week death came for a longer visit, in the form of a female sparrowhawk, who killed a collared dove with icy efficiency and then dismembered it on the garden path.

She stood on the corpse, plucking great mouthfuls of feathers and throwing them away with a jerk of the head. Occasionally, she’d lift her foot and scratch her beak to get rid of the fluff. Every few seconds, she’d look up and around with those manic yellow eyes, before getting back to work. Her talons, like black steel hooks, were deeply embedded in the breast of her prey, and the bare legs kept her a little above the gore.

After a few minutes she started to feed, ripping at the meat, all the time looking around. I really wanted her to turn, and eventually she did, so I could get a look at her chest feathers, barred in white and chocolate brown. Her tail feathers looked a little sad and ragged, but she was generally in good condition. And she was bold, too. At one point she heard the lady next door come outside to hang her washing up, and the bird looked around and froze. But after thirty seconds she went back to her meal.

As the sparrowhawk fed, the garden fell silent, except for the blue tits who are nesting next door. They were frantic, and their whirrs and peeps of alarm sounded like a soundtrack to the sparrowhawk’s tearing and rending. The great predators of the world are attended by an envelope of sound, that travels with them as they move about, like the trumpets of courtiers.

I felt bad about the dove. They come to the garden because I feed them, and this should be a safe place for them. But the sparrowhawk might be incubating eggs, or have nestlings, and needs to live too. Plus, although it matters not to the poor dead prey, this is a wild bird, not some domesticated cat entertaining itself. Sparrowhawks have been killing other birds for millenia. Maybe this is the kind of death that an animal can understand, unlike the many endings that we visit upon them, with our guns and poison and traps and laboratories, our slaughterhouses and factory farms and many forms of ‘entertainment’. It was at least an honest death, one animal to another, for simple reasons.

I went upstairs to change my camera battery, and when I came back the hawk was gone, and so was the dove: the sparrowhawk must have carried off its carcass to enjoy in a more peaceful spot. The feathers were still drifting and settling in the breeze of her departure. And in her place there was a hawk-shaped absence, a delay in the return to normality, as if the bird had carved a space in the universe, and the atoms were reluctant to rush back in. Not a single dove or pigeon came to the whitebeam tree for the rest of the day, but today they are on the seed feeder again, pragmatic as all wild animals are. If the hawk fed yesterday, maybe she won’t need to feed today.

17 thoughts on “My Manners are Tearing Off Heads (Ted Hughes)

  1. Marla

    Death came to my garden this morning also.
    A lovely female cardinal built her nest in a bush just below my kitchen window this year. We watched her tweak and spin her bed of twigs, wild cotton, and the shed skin of a little snake. She laid three spotted eggs and tended to them without complaint sitting in a hot Florida sun. Eleven days have passed and we waited for those open, baby beaks to start poking up!
    Early this morning I glanced out the window to see the nest in total disarray. I went into the garden to see what had happened and found the remains of mama cardinal at the foot of the bush with one little egg smashed and caught in a branch.
    I imagine this death was the work of a local cat. I am quite sad at the loss of a this beautiful little bird but can I despise the cat? No, the cat’s instincts are to hunt and kill as the hawk. But I am weary of the small, quiet, peaceful ones always bearing the burden.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Marla, how heartbreaking. I know what you mean – it is so hard when the gentle creatures suffer. And I love cats too: it’s their instinct to hunt and kill, but how I hate to see the mangled results of their predations.

  2. Katya

    It can be very difficult to reconcile feelings of sadness at the fate of the dove, the very symbol of peace, with rational understanding of its predator’s instinct to kill it.
    I once witnessed a red tailed hawk swoop down onto a small gathering of doves eating sunflower seeds in my garden, and in an instant, grab one away in its talons. It was disheartening to see a once a bucolic scene of happiness and calm dissolve into utter chaos as the flock flew off in a panic. While the flurry of downy feathers floating in a silenced garden was indeed heartbreaking, the hawk’s calculated, almost majestic, precision, was truly stunning.

    1. Bug Woman

      Indeed. Hawks are stunning creatures, so perfectly adapted for their way of life. It’s not surprising that many songbirds have a specific call that means ‘hawk’.

  3. gertloveday

    We have butcher birds here that prey on smaller birds in just this way. An irony is that they have a lovely song. And of course tigers, the most beautiful of living things, kill to live.

    1. Bug Woman

      Indeed. Predators are some of the most exquisite of creatures. We have butcher birds too, members of the shrike family , who impale their prey on thorns to eat later – does this sound like your butcher bird, Gert? I’m always intrigued by the way that different birds end up with the same name in different countries….

  4. Michael

    I returned from a few days away to find two lots of feathers (probably wood pigeons) scattered over the lawn. I imagined it was down to the neighbour’s cat or the foxes. Both have been culprits on previous occasions. I have never seen a sparrowhawk in our garden so it is intriguing to imagine it might have been one of those. I much prefer the wild garden birds to any of the prey but the wood pigeons do seem to ask for their fate by eating too much and wandering around hardly on alert.

  5. Veronica Cooke

    I think these are such magnificent birds. We had one on the bird feeder once and managed to get a photo of it. As far as we know it hadn’t caught or killed any of the visiting birds to the feeder; or at least we found no evidence of it once the Sparrowhawk had flown away.

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